Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Warrior's Guide to Self-Defense Law: 1 - Defending yourself from lethal force

Self-defense law can be a daunting block of text, but it is also the only thing that will separate your actions between "justified personal protection" and "manslaughter". In this post, I offer a comprehensive overview of Illinois self-defense laws as they pertain to a variety of scenarios, all from the perspective of a lifelong Chicagoan and semi-experienced martial artist.

Introduction: "Justifiable use of force" and martial arts 
Chapter 1: Defending yourself from death or great bodily harm
Chapter 2: Defending another from death or great bodily harm
Chapter 3: Defending yourself from nonlethal, unlawful use of force
Chapter 4: Defending another from nonlethal, unlawful use of force

All sections include both a "Simple Summary" of the relevant laws, a detailed discussion, and some illustrative examples. Note that these examples are NOT exhaustive and NOT prescriptive. There are always exceptions and complications to every situation presented. I give them as a good starting point to get you thinking, not as legal advice. Finally, as an all-important disclaimer, I am not a lawyer. This post does not constitute legal advice. For the final word on legal issues, talk to a police officer or a lawyer in your city.

Martial art classes often emphasize physical conditioning, technique, and stress drilling before all else. This is especially true of self-defense classes, in which we recognize the importance of repetition and high-stress simulations. Although all of these components are critical in any self-defense scenario, we often neglect an aspect that is arguably more important: The law. Most state and municipal laws have statutes that govern the use of force in defense of yourself, another, and/or your property. Illinois, a state with a history of street violence, is no exception. If you are a martial artist in Illinois or Chicago, or ever envision yourself defending against an attacker in this state, then you NEED to know those laws.

Unfortunately, most people have neither the resources, time, nor inclination to seek out formal legal counsel to work through the nuances of self-defense law. That is a dangerous decision, given that these statutes are the only protection you have in the eyes of the court between justified self-defense and a protracted stay behind bars (not to mention civil suits, bad press, and disruption of personal life). Sometimes a single word in a statute is all that separates personal protection from manslaughter, and most people are not going to visit an attorney to learn those details.

That puts a murky responsibility on martial art instructors like myself. We teachers must strike a balance between both a) introducing our students to self-defense statutes, and b) helping them understand that we are neither cops nor lawyers. In that spirit, I give the same disclaimer now that I gave earlier in this article and in a previous post on knife-carrying: I am not a lawyer. This post does not constitute legal advice. For the final word on legal issues, talk to a police officer or a lawyer in your city.

Although I do not belong to the Illinois Bar, I still know a few things about Illinois self-defense laws that every Illinois and Chicago martial artist needs to know. In this post, I give an overview of the relevant statutes, their meaning, and their implications for self-defense. It is not formal legal advice, but it does give us a good place to start in thinking about the complexities of legal self-defense in Chicago.

The brunt of Illinois  self-defense-related laws can be found in Article 7 of its Criminal Code. Article 7 itself is entitled "JUSTIFIABLE USE OF FORCE; EXONERATION", a familiar term to anyone that has even the remotest interest in self-defense. In short, the sections within Article 7 lay out the conditions under which use of force is legally "justified". If you stick within those qualifications, you will not be prosecuted, jailed, sued, or otherwise run afoul of the legal system.

The first section of Article 7 is undoubtedly the most relevant to most martial artists. It outlines the conditions under which you can use physical force to defend yourself against an attack. Although the statute has a low word count, it hides a number of important details and nuances that need to be highlighted. It also encompasses a few different martial scenarios that should be separated out. In the interest of clarity, I am reproducing the whole section here before going on to discuss individual parts.
  • Section 7-1: Use of force in defense of a person
    a) A person is justified in the use of force against another when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or another against such other's imminent use of unlawful force. However, he is justified in the use of force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another, or the commission of a forcible felony.
    (b) In no case shall any act involving the use of force justified under this Section give rise to any claim or liability brought by or on behalf of any person acting within the definition of "aggressor" set forth in Section 7‑4 of this Article, or the estate, spouse, or other family member of such a person, against the person or estate of the person using such justified force, unless the use of force involves willful or wanton misconduct. 
In many respects, this section reads like some of David Hume's writings (and those of other great philosophers): It is easy to read through while nodding your head, not fully realizing what you are agreeing to. This says nothing about the greatness or philosophical aptitude of the writers of the Illinois Criminal Code, but everything about the complexities of this section. To honor the delicacy of these issues, I will work through the terminology slowly and methodically as it pertains to four general scenarios.


If someone puts you in immediate and imminent fear of death or serious bodily harm, and there are no other ways to avoid or escape, then you may use force that is likely to kill or severely injure your attacker IF such force is necessary to protect yourself. Once you are safe, you must stop using such force.

In the most fundamental self-defense scenario, an attacker puts you in fear of your life. Whether they have a weapon, have you in an extremely vulnerable and dangerous position, or have communicated their deadly intent, you find yourself in grave bodily jeopardy. In such cases, you might be legally allowed to employ deadly force to save yourself and stop your assailant. 

Everyone has probably heard the term "deadly force", and has some vague conception of its legal meaning. Unfortunately, those terms "vague conception" and "legal meaning" should never be in the same sentence as one another, so is important to convert vagueness into clarity. Moreover, that term "deadly force" doesn't actually show up in the Illinois statutes, so we need to know exactly what we are talking about. Turning to Section 7-1, it is clear that the whole section governs the use of force in defense against "unlawful force". But there is a clear distinction between force that is just unlawful, and force that is both unlawful and deadly. For now, I will focus on the latter.
  • Section 7-1: Use of force in defense of a person
    a) ...
    However, he is justified in the use of force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or another, or the commission of a forcible felony.
This is the most important statute governing use of deadly, or highly damaging, force. Breaking it down, a few critical terms need to be defined.
  1. "reasonably believes"
    Here is a good legal test for reasonable belief: Consider your own situation through the eyes of a disinterested third party. If the average Chicagoan (e.g. the sort of person on a jury of your peers) was in your exact same situation, would they too believe that they were in grave danger? More importantly, if they had the same skillset and experience as you, would they still believe that they were in harm's way?
    If you are a 6'4" male weighing in at 250 pounds of benchpressed muscle, and you are getting punched by a 5'4" female at half your weight, are you really in danger? Probably not. But if you switch those physical dimensions and gender, now the defender might be in serious peril.
  2. "necessary to prevent"
    The American legal system places a high premium on human life (thankfully). Taking a life, or jeopardizing one, must be a last resort. This phrase "necessary to prevent" underscores the last resort mentality. You can only use deadly force if it is the last available option to you. If you have other options, then you must exercise them first. If you do not, your use of force was not "necessary".
    For example, if you are on the sidewalk and a man starts lurching towards you from 25 feet away with a knife, it is not "necessary" to engage your attacker with your killer commando neck breaker to prevent harm. You can instead use the oldest defense in human history: Running. You can also shout for help. Or call 911. Or enter a building. In this case, deadly force is not necessary because it is not a last resort.
    On the other hand, if you are pinned to the floor and your attacker draws a knife, you are now out of options. Anything short of deadly force might not be enough to save you from death, so such use of force would likely be "necessary".
    As another critical note, once the danger and harm have been "prevented", it is no longer "necessary" to continue applying force. If you break the arm of an attacker with a handgun before taking the weapon, you need to back up and stop fighting. You can't stomp his head into the pavement. You can't break his other arm for good measure. And you definitely can't shoot him just "to be on the safe side". You MUST STOP once the threat has been prevented.
    A final and important point: "necessary" force also suggests "the minimum necessary" force. You can only use as much force as is needed to protect yourself and not a single punch more. In the case of the robber with a gun, once you disarm the attacker he will probably give up, run away, lie on the ground, etc. You have already applied the minimum amount of force and so must stop. But what if he charges you? Depending on the circumstances, pulling the trigger might now become the minimum necessary force to save yourself.
  3. "imminent"
    The threat of harm must also be immediate in the present moment. That is to say, if you fail to act right away, you will instantly be harmed or killed. This sense of urgency is a critical prerequisite to self-defense because the legal system differentiates between idiots who spout stupid threats, and those with actual deadly intent. If you are at the bar with your friends and a guy says he is going to come and get you tomorrow night, you can't leap across the counter and preemptively neutralize him in the next 5 seconds.
  4. preventing "great bodily harm"
    A student once asked me if she could use deadly force against a potential rapist who might not be likely to kill her (for example, a family member, a drunk boyfriend, a fellow student, etc.). Such an attacker could certainly kill, but from a statistical standpoint, it is less likely. Sexual assault might not always be lethal, but it is the perfect example of "great bodily harm". It is a vicious, devastating, disgusting, damaging, and indiscriminately violent act, and that is why Section 7-1 gives you license to use deadly force if it will prevent the crime.
    Other examples include brain damage from being strangled (or the ensuing damage an attacker could cause once you blackout), trauma from hitting one's head on a wall/the sidewalk, getting shot or stabbed anywhere, and a variety of other grisly scenarios. Size, strength, experience, gender, context, and a host of factors are all at play here. Smaller defenders will have a greater fear of bodily harm against larger attackers. Similarly, larger defenders will "reasonably" be in less fear of serious harm from a smaller attacker. If you fear such bodily harm, you are allowed to use high levels of force to prevent it.
  5. "intended or likely to cause"
    This is a term that I am defining out of order (it appears in the first sentence before the other three terms above). Why? Now that we have laid out some of the rules under which deadly force can be used, it helps to know what deadly force actually is. Force that is "intended" to cause death is pretty obvious. If you shot or stabbed your attacker, this is quite clearly intended to kill. If you fire your Ancient Black Lotus Style Heartstopper Punch, that is also clearly intended to kill. The term that is much less clear is the "likely to cause" qualification.
    We will use a lot of techniques that are "likely to cause" death or bodily harm without realize their danger. Any chokehold from wrestling, jujitsu, judo, aikido, etc. can cause brain damage and death even if they are part of "safe" grappling arts. Any throw or sweep or takedown can slam an attacker's head into the ground, cracking a skull, causing internal bleeding, damaging the spine, or bruising the brain.
    This term summons martial artists to closely examine their techniques. Those techniques that are "likely to cause" death or serious bodily harm are only justified in a case where you yourself fear death or serious bodily harm. 
The final term that merits discussion is this phrase "forcible felony". Unlike the above terms, this one actually has a legal definition within the Criminal Code itself. That definition is reproduced below. 
  • Sec. 2-8. "Forcible felony".
    "Forcible felony" means treason, first degree murder, second degree murder, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual assault, robbery, burglary, residential burglary, aggravated arson, arson, aggravated kidnapping, kidnapping, aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.
If you are ever the victim of any of those crimes, it appears that you may be justified in using lethal force. In some cases, you would likely not need a lawyer to tell you how to act (i.e. kidnapping, sexual assault, attempted murder, etc.). But others are a lot more hazy. Robbery, for example, rarely ends with any injury to the intended victim. Even armed robbers very rarely shoot their target, at least from a statistical standpoint. But under Illinois law, Armed Robbery is considered a violent crime that can result in serious injury or death to the victim. So if you are the victim of robbery, you would need to determine the extent of your danger and act accordingly. It's a judgement call (hence, "reasonably believe"), but it is also some tricky legal territory.

As a general rule, if one of those felonies is being committed and you are ALSO in great personal danger, you are more than justified in using a higher level of force, so long as that force is necessary to protect yourself. Again, that brings us back to kidnapping, sexual assault, attempted murder, and others. But if you are not in such bodily danger, then you must downgrade your use of force appropriately. Burglary and robbery are often in this latter category.

As should be clear now, the law places severe restrictions on when you can use lethal and crippling force to defend yourself. Of course, attacks themselves are often messy and chaotic, and do not always neatly fit the legal definitions above. To err on the safe side, always only use the minimum amount of force necessary to stop the attack. In some cases, this will be lethal force. In many others, however, it will not be.

Defending yourself from death or great bodily harm: Simple Summary
  • If someone puts you in immediate and imminent fear of death or serious bodily harm, and there are no other ways to avoid or escape, then you may use force that is likely to kill or severely injure your attacker IF such force is necessary to protect yourself. Once you are safe, you must stop using such force.
Techniques that are "likely to cause" death or severe injury
  • Chokeholds, e.g. rear naked, guillotine, triangle, etc.
    (Cuts off oxygen to brain, causing death or lasting brain damage)
  • Throws, e.g. reaps, shoulder throws, hip throws, etc.
    (Untrained opponent can fall on head causing death, brain damage, hemorrhaging, etc. Fall can damage spine causing paralysis and nerve damage)
  • Joint locks, e.g. arm bar, kimura, knee bar, etc.
    (Potential for permanent damage to bones, tendons, and ligaments around affected joint)
  • Stomps, knees, elbows, or kicks to the head of a downed opponent
    (Impact into hard surfaces can cause serious head and/or spinal trauma)
  • Slamming opponent's head into the ground or a wall
    (See above)
  • Stabbing or slashing an attacker anywhere, whether with your own knife or one you disarmed. 
  • Shooting an attacker anywhere, whether you intended to kill or just "shoot him in the leg"
Scenarios in which use of deadly force MIGHT be justified
  • You are being sexually assaulted.
  • A knife-wielding attacker is actively swinging/stabbing at you. 
  • An attacker tries to draw gun.
  • An attacker reaches into his jacket and says "you are dead" or something similar.
  • You are being choked on the ground and can't wriggle out.
  • A group takes you to the ground and kicks/stomps at your head. 
  • An attacker lifts you and tries to put you in a car or drag you to an alley.
  • An attacker, or attackers, says they are going to kill you, "fuck you up bad", or any other threat that would reasonably cause you to fear for your life. 
  • An armed robber demands your money. (This one is tricky) 
 Scenarios in which use of deadly force is PROBABLY NOT justified
  • A fraternity party brawl. (Walk away)
  • A drunk friend places you in a headlock. (Wrestle out, talk him down)
  • An attacker reaches into his jacket but you cannot see a weapon and he has not said he has a weapon. (Jam the draw, restrain opponent)
  • Three young men point at you menacingly from across the street and walk towards you (RUN!).
  • An angry patron accuses you of cutting the line and slaps you. (Tell security)
  • A smaller, in height and/or weight, attacker tries to tackle and punch you. (Use your less-lethal unarmed defenses)
  • An armed robber demands your money (Again, this one is tricky).  
These examples are certainly not exhaustive, and all of them probably have some exceptions. But insofar as they can used as general guidelines, they are valuable for us martial artists.

Join me next time for part 2 where I talk about defending another person from lethal force. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

May safety briefing - Hyde Park crime map and trends

Tom Skilling doesn't lie; spring is finally here in Chicago and summer is on its way! For most UChicago students, May is that month where we remember what the sun looks like. It is a month of severe senioritis, where students ditch as many classes as allowed by their professor's attendance policy (and then one more just for good measure). For some students, it is the long awaited month of Scavenger Hunt. For other students, it is that strange month where a bunch of paramilitary organizations run around campus dressed as David Bowie and pushing giant wooden Banthas. And of course, it is also a month where we really start to see an uptick in Chicago crime. The South and West Sides start to see more shootings. The Loop sees more youth mob attacks and iPhone snatchings. And Hyde Park sees more robberies and random attacks. The past six Aprils have seen a total of 135 violent incidents. The past 6 Mays, however, have seen 204. This article will give you some concrete information that can help you stay safe as you enjoy your last full month in Hyde Park before the summer. No matter whether you are playing Ultimate Frisbee in Washington Park or building a walk-through model of a human organ for Scav, you can find some tips here to help you stay safe.

(Note: As with previous articles of this nature, I am only looking at violent crime that occurred in a public space, such as the street, sidewalk, a park, etc. I am also excluding all crimes classified as "Domestic" by the Chicago Police Department; these incidents are less likely to affect the average bystander than more targeted attacks)

Although certain parts of the UChicago area see more May crime than others, the crime distribution actually evens out much more than we saw in April. We also start to see a lot more crime, both in areas that are traditionally considered "unsafe" and areas that are supposed to be well-patrolled.
  • 30% of all April violent crimes (roughly 60 incidents) happen in the North Hyde Park area bounded by 51st and 55th, and Woodlawn and Lake Park. This is an area where lots of students live and parties occur, so be safe when walking around here. Those crimes are split about 50/50 between robbery and battery.
  • Do not venture south of 60th Street while on Cottage Grove; 23 incidents in the last 6 years happened just between 60th and 62nd Streets on Cottage. That's 11% of total May crime occurring in just two blocks that account for less than 1% of the total area.
Although the UChicago campus itself remained fairly safe during May, in the 6 year period, there were 8 robberies that occurred either on or within two blocks of the main quads. Some of these attacks occurred in 2007 and 2008, before UChicago beefed up its Allied-Barton Security presence around the main academic core. But others happened as recently as 2012, underscoring the need for awareness and safety no matter where you are in the area.

The Google map below shows the May distribution of Hyde Park violent crime. You can click on any individual point to get some more detailed information about the incident, including its date, time, and type of attack. The map points are colored based off of the type of crime:
  • Brown Dot: Assault
  • Yellow Dot: Battery
  • Red Dot: Robbery
  • Red Flag: Homicide
  • Yellow Flag: Sexual Assault

In discussing the April map from my last safety briefing, I sad not to worry about all the scary dots. To some extent, that is still true of May, but we really need to be mindful of the increase, and also the spread across Hyde Park. We must still remember that the Woodlawn and Englewood maps would be almost unreadable if we just plotted Simple Battery (punching, slapping, pushing, etc.) alone, let alone robbery and assault.

For the most part, Hyde Park crimes are similar to those committed across the rest of the city, at least compared to neighborhoods with similar income levels. That means lots of crimes of opportunity, but very few shootings and gang-related incidents.
  • Battery was the most common crime in Hyde Park, accounting for 46% of all crimes (94). This was followed by robbery (36%, 73) and assault (17%, 35).
  • There was only 1 homicide and 1 reported incident of Criminal Sexual Assault in Hyde Park over this time period. 
  • The majority of Hyde Park violent crime in May, 68%, is commited by unarmed perpetrators. Looking just at May crime, only 21% of incidents involved a gun, with 10% occurring with some other dangerous weapon.
  • The vast majority of batteries (80%) involved unarmed perpetrators.
  • Robberies were almost split evenly between unarmed, strongarm incidents (53%) and armed attacks involving guns (34%) or knives and other dangerous weapons (12%).
From a martial perspective, notice that robberies have a pretty scary split between unarmed and armed attacks. Although you are more likely to get attacked by a strongarm robber, guns and knives are still quite common. So keep that in mind when training; don't focus too heavily on only one angle of attack.

The table below gives a bigger picture of all the May violent crime that occurred in Hyde Park. Remember that this just reflects reported incidents and not those attacks which are excluded from the CPD database.

May violent crimes in Hyde Park: 2007 - 2012
Type Description # of incidents
All Assault

Simple Assault

Aggravanted Assault - Gun

Aggravated Assault - Knife/Other
All Battery

Simple Battery

Aggravated Battery - Gun

Aggravated Battery - Knife/Other
All Robbery

Strongarm Robbery

Armed Robbery - Gun

Armed Robbery - Knife/Other
Criminal Sexual


It is impossible to know which of these crimes are more likely to affect students and which are more likely to affect residents and members of the greater community. As a good general rule, however, anyone can be the victim of any crime (Except for Homicide; it is extremely unlikely that a UChicago student would be killed, although it tragically did happen in late 2007).

One of the common urban safety myths is that nighttime is scarier than daytime. Although there is some truth to that, it ignores the highest crime window of the day: The late afternoon. Hyde Park violent crime in May really drives this point home.
  • From 2007 through 2012, the most dangerous time of day was between 4:00 and 7:00 PM, with 23% of area violent crime happening in these three hours. This should be an alarming observation for students; late afternoon is a high traffic time of the day where most pedestrians are off-guard and just happy to be done with their day of work and classes. Stay alert!
  • Crime remains high from 7:00 PM through 2:00 AM. I know that is a huge window of time, and it is unreasonable to remain vigilant during the entire 7 hour period. Even so, when you head out to a party or for a late night snack, do not forget your basic awareness skills.
  • Early morning crime is exceptionally rare in Hyde Park during the month of May. In the 6 hours from 2:00 AM through 8:00 AM, there were only 15 incidents in all 6 years.
Again, we must acknowledge that crime trends often fluctuate wildly throughout the years, so there is some risk in comparing yearly crime data. But the time trends of the Mays are very similar to the overall time trends of year-round Hyde Park data, so I am comfortable giving them.

The graph below gives a time frequency distribution for May violent crime in Hyde Park. The spikes at 4:00 and 6:00 PM are quite clear, as is the relative safety of the early morning. One thing you will notice about May crime is that, unlike in April, incidents occur all afternoon and evening, not just around 4-5 PM.
As with April crime data, this is not to suggest that you need to stay inside after 4:00 PM, even if that is technically the safest course of action. It is just to emphasize the need for passive and casual awareness skills, skills that everyone should have regardless of what month it is.

In April, crime was relatively stable throughout the week. That's not true in May. Contrary to popular wisdom, the majority of crimes actually occur during the week, with Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday seeing the peak in violent incidents. Friday, although a very bloody day across the entire city, is relatively tame in Hyde Park. It should be noted that within individual crime categories, i.e. robbery/battery/assault, only some incidents fluctuate throughout the week. Robbery hovers around 10 incidents for each day over the 6 year period. Battery ranges between a high of 17 on Mondays to a low of 8 on Fridays. And again, it is hard to make statistically significant conclusions from such a small dataset, but the information is still worth knowing.

The graph below breaks down the three different violent crime types (assault, battery, robbery) by day, aggregating data from the past 6 Mays.

This is one of those great examples of crime data not following any discernable patterns or trends. Hyde Park violence just happens during all days of the week with no clear rhyme or reason. Sure, with additional analytical tools we could probably pick out more patterns over a larger dataset. But from a pure self-defense perspective, everyone should just be looking at this data and realizing that "crime just happens".

The reality of interpersonal crime and violence is a lot messier than the data will suggest. Looking back to the crime versus time plot above, we can see that only 1 Hyde Park resident experienced any sort of violence at 7:00 AM in the last 6 years. But if you yourself were that 1 victim, the percentages and probabilities wouldn't mean a thing.

Numbers like those given in this article are just a starting point for common sense self-defense techniques. You always want to be aware and alert, whether it you are taking an evening stroll through West Englewood or a morning jog through Lincoln Park. But in some cases, the data might inform you to be extra wary. For instance, if you were walking down 62nd and Kimbark at 4:30 PM this coming Friday, you might want to exercise more caution than if you were doing the same on 57th and Woodlawn.

As always, be safe, remain alert, and stay safe out there.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Techniques: Tricks to identify potential criminals

Chicago temperatures are rising, and that means the crime rate will follow. Although the average reader of this blog does not need to worry about the gang violence that occurs on the city's periphery, the threat of robbery, theft, random battery, or even sexual assault is still very real. Most of us, if not all, will never suffer one of these crimes (God willing). But with the weather warming, there will be more criminals and predators on the street, and a greater chance of victimization. To minimize our chances of falling prey to crime, we need to learn to identify bad guys and distinguish them from the average pedestrians.

The new iPhone app.
Just point and scan!
This article goes over the threat identification process. In many ways, this is one of the hardest parts of self-defense because it forces us to forget our socialization and human politeness. It demands us to make assumptions, generalizations, and even to profile. It forces us to take shortcuts when there are no easy ones to take. As I will discuss, this can be a philosophically difficult task, especially for those who are trying to help low-income populations. But it is also a critical tool in our self-defense toolbox, and one that every Chicagoan should have. To get you thinking about the topic, here is the checklist I eventually introduce as a way of identifying a person as a potential criminal. It also works to help identify dangerous groups. More "yes" answers means more danger.
  1. Is it between 3:00 PM and 3:00 AM?
  2. Are you on a low-traffic street? 
  3. Do you feel that the person is making inappropriate and constant eye contact?
  4. Does the person not have a bag/backpack?
  5. Is the person not on their cell phone?
  6. Is the person wearing unseasonably warm clothing?
  7. If the person is in group, is the group loud, rowdy, and overly physical?
  8. Do you feel uncomfortable?
Walking down the street is an ordinary experience. Being followed or confronted by a potential predator is an extraordinary one. Once we actually confirm this experience is happening, extraordinary action is justified. We can run, call 911, scream, and fight. But until that point, we need to overcome the inertia of our ordinary, polite, friendly pedestrian mindframe and shift to an extraordinary, impolite, survivalist one. That rapid and radical shift makes this a very difficult step in the self-defense process.

Too bad there wasn't
an archery gene
One of the most enduring bits of human evolution is our sense of community and family we share with all people, including those we do not know or have never even met. Our bygone ancestors were selected for their communal sensibilities. Antisocial genes got weaned out as the social folk flourished; in a foraging community, any selective advantage of selfishness is outweighed by the community's selection against that trait. Today, we wave to people, nod to them, smile at them, and generally trust them to be congenial fellows. We are very much the sort of person you would love to have on your hunter-gatherer team.

It is not just an evolutionary instinct, but also a strong social one. This is especially true in modern America. From birth, many of us are conditioned to be polite and unobtrusive, to not make assumptions and to give the benefit of the doubt. This is how we play in the sandbox, make friends in school, get job interviews, mingle at parties, and generally go about our day. Incidentally, many residents of the precise neighborhoods we want to avoid have a different social conditioning, one that might challenge them in these above settings, but make much more efficient survivors. But for the average UChicago student, let alone reader of this blog, we have probably enjoyed lifelong conditioning towards friendly and sociable behavior. 

Sandbox defense against carjacking.
As a side note, check out that Jujitsu technique!
These are great dinner party mannerisms but terrible self-defense instincts. Self-defense is about prioritizing personal safety over propriety. Threat identification is so hard because it forces you to suspend that shared sense of human community, both the social and evolutionary instincts. It is hard to adopt an animal-like survival mode. Most of us have gone our whole lives without making that shift, and we are deeply uncomfortable with doing so. But most of the time, our problem is not that we can't become survival-driven animals. If actually cornered, even the most docile academic can escalate into a frenzied berserker. The problem is that we don't want to escalate when we are just walking home from the bus stop. It's rude, silly, paranoid, or even racist. And if the stakes aren't immediately high, we will never risk being any of those things. How do we break out of this behavior? We must learn to identify the signals and evidence that will demand that you make the shift.

I use a number of criteria to try and identify a potential attacker. Given the high stakes of a false-negative (misidentifying a threat as harmless), I always err on the side of suspicion. As I often discuss in other articles, this awareness, orparanoia depending on how you want to frame it, can certainly be at odds with your personal philosophies and your daily enjoyment.
Not sure if muggers...
...or fellow consultants.
It can be hard to go for a late night walk with friends if you are too busy scanning the area every 10 seconds. It might feel inconsistent to work with young black or Latino students during the day, and then to avoid other young minorities at night. These are serious challenges that cannot be answered through purely technical advice as I give here. I will end with a brief discussion on these apparent contradictions, but it ultimately falls to you to see where it fits into your personal moral compass.

In the spirit of actionable advice, here is an 8 point checklist that I use to try and identify a potential robber, stalker, or criminal. These items will help you distinguish a threat from an average pedestrian. It might seem like a long list to deploy at short notice, but with practice you will remember the points intuitively. I recommend NOT adding or subtracting points from the list. With too little information, we can't make an informed decision and we increase the risk of false positives (identifying pedestrians as predators) and false negatives. With too much information, we take too long to process our knowledge and we act slowly. This list tries to strike a balance between both extremes.

You are walking to your destination and someone is walking behind you. This also applies to groups of people. Answer the following questions. The more you answer "Yes", the more worried you should be.
  1. Is it between 3:00 PM and 3:00 AM?
    If you live in Chicago, the vast majority of crimes happen after 3:00 PM and until 3:00 AM. Some crimes happen earlier (the 5:30 AM UChicago robbery of this spring comes to mind) and criminals definitely don't follow a schedule. As I always say, if you are attacked during these supposed "off hours", you aren't going to care about the statistical trends. But if you want to start collecting information, this is a good place to begin. I emphasize "time" and not "ambient lighting" because there are plenty of robberies that happen at 4:00 PM when it is bright and sunny out. 

  2. Are you on a low-traffic street?
    Even the most brazen robbers prefer to avoid witnesses. The busier your
    Just a stroll by the vacant warehouse.
    street, the safer you are; it's one of those common sense lessons that your parents endlessly repeat. It isn't that criminals aren't capable of dealing with witnesses, either by striking quickly or intimidating them away. It's that criminals generally want easy payouts. Whether that payout is from your wallet, your car, or something worse, it's always easier with no witnesses around. Two glaring exceptions to this are CTA "Apple Picking" (i.e. iPhone snatch and grabs) and the mob "wildings" we see in downtown Chicago. In the former case, this is often a nonviolent crime of opportunity. In the latter case, there are just so many other warning sings to clue you in beforehand.

  3. Do you feel that the person is making inappropriate and constant eye contact?
    One of the consequences of socialization is that we tend to be fairly knowledgeable about the difference between menacing and welcoming physical cues. With just a brief moment of eye contact between you and a potential follower, you can gain a lot of quick information. We know that a returned nod and a wave means "Hello", indicating a person who probably harbors no ill-intent. If your eye contact is ignored, this means some combination of "Don't bother me" or "I'm oblivious"; also not signs of impending violence. But we also know that a humorless glare means "Watch out". If you see that, it might mean trouble. Just as you know that significance of this threatening glance, so too does the potential criminal. He is putting on his look for a reason, and it's probably an unhealthy one. Of course, you might misinterpret a signal from a pedestrian. If that is the case, just casually look again. An innocent pedestrian is likely to ignore you a second time, smile again, or even just look at you quizzically. An attacker will keep his steely expression.This is particularly important in assessing a group. More eyes can mean more danger.

  4. Does the person not have a bag?
    It's hard to fight and run with a backpack. Ever tried sprinting to catch a bus
    Some belongings should arouse
    more suspicion than others
    while your bag is bouncing around, falling off your shoulders? Your average Chicago criminal has about as much tactical sophistication as a 5th grader on Call of Duty, but they do understand the importance of speed and lightness. Bags limit their ability to rapidly attack and disappear. They are also additional distinctive characteristics that a victim or witness can use to identify the attacker to the police. Moreover, bags are often the marks of someone who is going to or coming from a definitive location. They are leaving school, going to work, or coming home. Criminals are generally out with the intent to commit a crime, not in transit from point A to point B.

  5. Is the person not on their cell phone?
    Most attackers want to focus on their target and any potential witnesses. Just as we lose defensive awareness when we are on our phones, so too does an attacker lose their offensive awareness in the same situation. A person talking on his phone is also announcing his presence through his audible conversation. Although it is possible that a criminal would use this tactic just to lull us into a false sense of safety, a flat out surprise attack would be more effective.

  6. Is the person wearing unseasonably warm clothing?
    Armed criminals need a place to conceal their weapons. The overwhelming majority of robbers and attackers are not using a formal holster for their firearm, or a proper sheath for their knives. This means that weapons are carried in bulky pockets, tucked into waistbands, or simply grasped under
    Anyone that wore this armor on Tatooine is
    clearly up to no good
    clothes.With baggier or larger clothing, it is easier to conceal a weapon. Now, we must think critically when using this criteria so as not to confuse tactical awareness with outright discrimination. Lots of young minorities will wear baggy clothes, as a matter of culture, personal style, income, etc. Very few of them are concealing an assault rifle arsenal under those hoodies, let alone a pistol. If we just judge clothes at the expense of other items on the checklist, we are just creating a proxy criteria for racism, and that is neither right nor even particularly safe.

  7. If the person is in a group, is the group loud, rowdy, and overly physical?
    UChicago students walk around in groups all the time. So do financial district I-Bankers and consultants. What distinguishes these groups from potentially criminal ones is physicality. Groups that are likely to engage in violence or illegal activity are often acting far too rowdily for their setting. Take those I-Bankers and get them drunk and upset after yet another losing Cubs game, and I would give them as wide a berth as I would a group of young South Side men all wearing black and blue. When groups get physical, especially groups of men, the group dynamic can often be dangerous to outsiders. Roughhousing, playful fighting, wrestling, grabbing, and similar actions are the hallmarks of an aggressive group. Although this group may not have planned to commit a crime, if the thought strikes them in their charged state, you do not want to be nearby.

  8. Do you feel uncomfortable?
    If you have gotten this far through the checklist, you need to only ask yourself one final question: Do you feel uneasy? If the answer is "yes", then you now have ample reason to run, or even call the cops or fight. As strong as our social evolutionary instincts are, our survival instincts are even stronger. If those alarms go off and you have also answered positively to many of those questions above, you might have a serious threat on your hands. To some extent, I acknowledge that this point is a bit lazy. I was supposed to provide you the reasons to prompt your discomfort, not just invoke it as a motive. That said, there are dozens of other factors that you have personally gathered in your own experiences, all of which need to affect your sense of safety. If my list combines with your list to cause discomfort, then you have good reason to flee. 
As a final concession, I admit that there is something very artificial about this checklist. It reeks of UChicago theorizing, and might seem completely devoid of real application. In my experience, however, these questions are all invaluable in influencing your fight/flight response. You might misidentify some good guys as criminals, but that's an error that you can joke about later. But there is nothing laughable about a false negative. If you think that the criminal is actually a pedestrian, the error can be very costly. This checklist, despite its theoretical appearance, is a very practice tool to help you avoid that fate.

What about race? Or age? Should we identify criminals on these characteristics? Is that good self-defense, or is it just racism?

This point often comes up in my articles. It's a natural consequence of being a practicing social worker and a martial artist. More generally, it is an issue that everyone should be considering, warriors, scholars, and average Joes alike. When I was younger, I didn't question the prevailing Chicagoan wisdom that "blacks are more likely to commit crimes, so we should profile against them for our own safety". It seemed like a risk-averse strategy that would minimize your own chance of victimization, even if at the expense of some broader concept of race and humanity. Most UChicago students also follow this paradigm, and I have definitely been at fault for not explicitly denying its effectiveness.

Chicago's most dangerous gang
Two things changed my view on racial profiling for self-defense. The first was a purely tactical consideration. When you identify potential criminals based on a single race, you train yourself to ignore other kinds of threats. I always tell my students that the scariest group in Chicago is not found on the South or West Side. It is the roving packs of young white males that you see on the Wrigleyville bar scene after hours. They are not likely to rob you, and it is a good bet that they didn't plan to commit a crime. But they are prone to misinterpret any signal you give them, and they are primed for fighting. When you focus too much on one race, you start to ignore the wider threat portfolio of our city. So even from a primarily self-defense perspective, completely independent of moral reasoning, profiling can be ineffective.

There is a more important reason not to profile: Empathy. We need to be aware and respectful of the circumstances that minorities live in throughout Chicago, and we need to be mindful of how that affects our perceptions of them. We must
The average white guy in a suit
be mindful of differences. Some activities that look suspicious to us from our white, middle class standpoint can just be everyday business for a non-criminal black youth. For example, many Woodlawn young people will walk home together in a noisy, rambunctious group. Is this because they are ganged up and ready to rob anyone? Probably not. It is much more likely that they are doing it for safety, or simply because that's what young high school kids do when classes get out. Clothes are another example. We profile against young men in hoodies and jackets, especially when those clothes are too baggy or warm for the weather. But this may just be a difference in cultural attire. Or maybe the young person cannot afford better fitting clothes. Maybe his pants lack pockets. Or maybe he just wants to wear it, the same way the white "hipsters" will forgo socks in a snowy February. Profiling minorities as criminals because some criminals wear hoodies is not unlike thinking all businessmen in suits are federal agents.

These calculations are very difficult to make from the safety of our classrooms, let alone on a deserted street at 9:30 PM. So it's unfair to expect it of everyone, especially those who have just arrived in Chicago or an urban environ. But even when dealing with issues of safety and self-protection, continue to be mindful about the realities of others. You do not need to incorporate that into your calculus on the first time, but you should increasingly try and make it a part of your thought process when going out around the town.